Side view of neural networks in a brain

Mental Health & Disorders

HEALTH AREA

Mental illness is responsible for one of the largest disease burdens in Australia. NeuRA has active programs in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as childhood developmental disorders such as autism and behavioural disorders such as ADHD.

Anxiety

Anxiety disorder is a general term for frequent bouts of nervousness, fear, apprehension, or worrying, which appear without a reasonable cause. They can cause real, physical symptoms and affect how a person behaves.

Autism

One study is using an innovative technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to study compare longitudinal changes in brain activity in children aged 2-6 who have autism with typically developing children.

Binge drinking

Adolescence is a critical period for brain development. We are conducting research into how excessive drinking affects the teenage brain. This research will be crucial to informing our alcohol licensing laws and public health advice.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is an illness that affects around 1% of the Australian population. Without treatment it can be debilitating, although those living with bipolar can lead successful and fulfilling lives by managing their condition. Bipolar disorder is classified as a mood (or affective) disorder and is characterised by extreme swings in mood. While we don’t know what causes bipolar disorder, we believe it has a biological basis. We are currently working on identifying the genetic causes of bipolar disorder by studying families and individuals with bipolar disorder, as well as the young children of people who have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. So far, we have identified a number of susceptibility genes which we believe increase a person’s risk in developing bipolar disorder.

Childhood disorders

Having a good understanding of mood and behavioural disorders is important. So too is starting an intervention early to correct the trajectory of these disorders because this is a time when the brain is still developing, as is the young person's idea of who they can be.

Depression

Depression is more than just tearfulness or feelings of sadness. It refers to a range of mood and other symptoms that are intense, long-lasting and distressing to the person. These symptoms will likely interfere with a person’s day-to-day life and relationships.

Epidemiology & Population Health

Our research seeks to determine the antecedents, and risk and protective factors for particular mental disorders, with implications for identifying new targets for preventative interventions.

Resilience

Resilience defines the process that enables people to cope and positively adapt in the face of stress or misfortune, and enables them to better handle adversity or rebuild their lives after a catastrophe.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that emerges in adolescence or young adulthood and affects approximately 1 in 100 people in Australia and worldwide. It causes difficulties in thinking and unusual experiences such as hearing unpleasant voices or having false and sometimes bizarre beliefs. People with schizophrenia often avoid family and friends, lack motivation and are often unable to work.

Stress-related psychopathology

Psychotic disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder) and mood disorders (e.g., bipolar disorder, major depression) are known to share genetic vulnerabilities and environmental risk factors that affect brain function and cognition. Our multidisciplinary approach to understanding the stress-related neurobiology of these severe and disabling psychiatric conditions sees collaboration among experts in cognition, neuroimaging, genetics, and bioinformatics working together on a number of specific projects which are listed below according to funding received.

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Exploring the electrophysiology and heritability of wellbeing and resilience

The majority of adults without a mental illness still experience poor mental health, indicating a need for a better understanding of what separates mental wellness from mental illness. One way of exploring what separates those with good mental health from those with poor mental health is to use electroencephalography (EEG) to explore differences in brain activity within the healthy population. Previous research has shown that EEG measures differ between clinical groups and healthy participants, suggesting that these measures are useful indicators of mental functioning. Miranda Chilver’s current project aims to examine how different EEG measures relate to each other and to test if they can be used to predict mental wellbeing. Furthermore, she hopes to distinguish between EEG markers of symptoms including depression and anxiety, and markers of positive symptoms of wellbeing to better understand how wellbeing can exist independently of mental illness. This will be done by obtaining measures of wellbeing and depression and anxiety symptoms using the COMPAS-W and DASS-42 questionnaires, respectively. Because EEG measures and mental wellbeing are both impacted by genetics as well as the environment, Miranda will also be testing whether the links found between EEG activity and Wellbeing are driven primarily by heritable or by environmental factors. This information will inform the development of future interventions that will aim to improve wellbeing in the general population. To achieve these goals, the project will assess the relationship between EEG activity and wellbeing, and between EEG and depression and anxiety symptoms to first test whether there is an association between EEG and mental health. Second, the heritability of the EEG, wellbeing, depression, and anxiety will be assessed to determine the extent to which these variables are explained through heritable or environmental factors. Finally, a model assessing the overlap between the heritable versus environmental contributions to each measure will be developed to assess whether genetics or environment drive the relationship between EEG and mental health. This project is based on a sample of over 400 healthy adult twins from the Australian TWIN-E study of resilience led by Dr Justine Gatt. This research will pave the way for improved mental health interventions based on individual needs.
PROJECT